GREGORY THE ILLUMINATOR, SAINT, or the Armenian (c. 240-332)
The bishop and patriarch of Armenia who is a “martyr without bloodshed” (feast days: 15 Kiyahk and 19 Tut). His is venerated in the diptychs of the Coptic church, where his name is mentioned together with two other Gregorys, Thaumaturgus (c. 213-270) and the Theologian (c. 330-395). He is also called the “Apostle of Armenia” for having evangelized the country, although, historically, he was preceded in this mission by Saint Bartholomew, one of the twelve disciples of Christ.
According to an Armenian tradition, Gregory was the son of a Parthian nobleman, Amak, who assassinated King Chosroes I by order of Ardashir. The dying king commanded that Amak’s whole family be put to death. But the infant Gregory was saved and secretly taken to Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he was brought up as a Christian by a foster mother; later he married a devout woman who bore him two sons. A few years afterward, the married couple chose to forgo their conjugal relationship, preferring to devote their lives to worship and prayer.
Upon his return to Armenia, he was attached to the court of King Tiridates, who succeeded his father, Chosroes, to the throne, thanks to the efforts of Emperor DIOCLETIAN. Not knowing his true identity, Tiridates ordered Gregory to offer incense to the idols, but the latter persistently refused, and was subjected to extreme acts of torture, which came to be known as “the twelve tortures of Saint Gregory,” and he was finally thrown into a pit. Here he was secretly fed by an old Christian woman named Anna for a number of years.
The legendary life story of Gregory is interwoven with an episode about a community of nuns who had been living in Rome, but fled to escape from the designs of Diocletian upon one of them, Rhipsime. They took refuge in the capital of Armenia, but there they fell prey to the harassment of King Tiridates who, before returning Rhipsime to Diocletian, attempted to seduce her. However, she managed to escape, but was later caught by the king’s men, who put her and her companions to death.
The story goes that, by divine retribution, Tiridates was transformed into a wild boar and his subjects were smitten with the plague. In a dream, his sister was told that only Gregory could bring about her brother’s recovery. Gregory was therefore released from the pit, and his prayers produced the miraculous recovery of the king and his subjects, all of whom embraced Christianity. Gregory was thus able to preach in public, and was consecrated bishop of Armenia by Leontius, bishop of Caesarea.
Having reached an advanced age, Gregory consecrated his son bishop, and retired to a life of solitude and meditation. In 325, he was called upon to take part in the Council of NICAEA, but he delegated his son, Bishop Aristages, to go in his place.
- Davidson, L. “Gregorius (7), St.” In DCB 2, pp. 737-39.
- Langlois, V. Collection des historiens anciens et modernes de l’Arménie. Paris, 1867-1869.
- Peeters, P. “S. Grégoire l’Illuminateur dans le calendrier lapidaire de Naples.” Analecta Bollandiana 60 (1942):91-130.